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Tuesday, May 20, 2008
"THEY'RE ALL GANGING UP ON HER"
We are starting to see the outlines of Hillary Clinton's master narrative for her candidacy during the closing weeks of the campaign. Essentially, she is inspring a lot of feminist commentary about how Barack Obama and the Democratic establishment and the media are forcing her out of the race before the votes have been counted, and denying her supporters (especially women eager to support a serious female candidate) the opportunity to vote for her.
It's politically irrelevant (there are few scenarios in which she can win the nomination, and those involve deus-ex-machina type events, not adjustments to her campaign strategy) but a fascinating study in the use of feminist rhetoric in American discourse.
This is, of course, not the first time Hillary has claimed that the old boys are trying to keep the women (represented by her) in their place. She did this in the runup to the New Hampshire primary. She did this when she complained that Obama always got the first question in the debates. She did this when she contended that Rick Lazio, her opponent in the US Senate race in 2000, was "invading her space" at a debate. And, of course, she did this over and over again as First Lady.
The thing that interests me about this line of rhetoric is that while it is very effective for her and is labeled a feminist argument, it actually is the kind of thing that is quite bad for actual feminism. Not that discourse doesn't matter to feminists. Deborah Tannen has enjoyed popularity in both academic and public intellectual circles discussing the relationship between gender and discourse. And language reflects and can shape reality. Workplaces full of sexist language can create a hostile environment. Condescending language (such as male supervisors calling female employees "honey" and "sweetie") can reinforce antiquated views about female subordination.
But even though that is true, and even though it is further true that we want women in politics to face a level playing field with men, it is nonetheless true that the rhetorical climate faced by Hillary Clinton is far from a feminist priority, or at least it should be. For one thing, Hillary Clinton can capitalize on it. It doesn't hurt her candidacy when hecklers chant "iron my shirt" at her; it helps it.
Additionally, however, most of the things that Hillary Clinton and her supporters are complaining about are simply not, in the scheme of things, that big a deal. It is certainly true that Clinton's supporters saw the debate with Lazio as an example of a male invading a female's space. (Lazio came over to Clinton's lectern to make a point). But the reason why feminists are concerned about men invading women's space has no application to political debates. Nobody thinks that Lazio was actually threatening physical violence against Clinton or was imposing his physical size on her to get his way.
Similarly, the fact that several male candidates ganged up on her in early debates is, in fact, a feminist triumph, because it was a tribute to the fact that for the first time, a woman was a frontrunner in a presidential primary campaign. And many Americans want a President who has been tested in some way under fire, it's not a good thing to protect female candidates from this sort of dynamic. Such protection doesn't help them get elected. It's simply not the same as men ganging up on the sole woman in a male-dominated worksite. (Indeed, if anything, the complaints made by the Clinton campaign and their supporters were almost demanding that she be placed on a pedestal, which is the worst possible thing for feminism.)
In the meantime, there are actual feminist priorities out there. Reproductive rights. Equal pay. The second shift of housework that many women who are married or in relationships do. Continued job discrimination and sexual harassment. Lack of child care. The last thing the feminist movement needs is to have the brand associated with relatively trivial issues about the symbolic complaints of female political candidates with respect to procedural issues. Moreover, to the extent that Hillary's campaigning in this manner breeds resentment against Barack Obama in the fall and a dropoff in his support, this could really set back the feminist agenda. (I am skeptical that this will happen, but the cynical use of feminism by the Clinton campaign doesn't help things any.)
We need to stop pretending that the feminist cause begins and ends with Hillary Clinton's wishes and desires. I understand the emotional appeal of second wave feminist women, who fought to integrate schools and workplaces and blazed the trail for younger generations, to voting for a credible female candidate for President, an opportunity that may not come again in their lives. But the feminist movement is about all women, not one woman. And voting against Hillary Clinton and for Barack Obama is simply not anti-feminist. Indeed, it may advance the cause of feminism more than voting for Clinton would.
Labels: Clinton Obama feminism
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